Sunday, May 25, 2014

Cordillera Days

One of my favorite things about Hong Kong is the diversity of cultures which coexist together. In the past month (as well as the past year) I’ve had the opportunity to attend various cultural events.

The Cordillera Days began in the Philippines to celebrate the Cordillera Region, which is made up of six provinces in the Northern Philippines (and current home to YASCer Margaret). It tells the story of the Cordillera people from their own perspectives, including a rich agricultural tradition and the history of colonization and exploitation from mining companies. Today, the Cordillera Days are celebrated throughout the world.

The objectives of the Cordillera Days in Hong Kong are to teach migrants from both Cordillera and all over the Philippines the history of Cordillera, to invite people from other nationalities to hear their stories, and to share the issues that affect the peoples from the region.

There were many cultural presentations throughout the day, particularly dances that expressed the history of each area. The cultural group that I hang out with performed a dance to share their experiences with mining companies coming to the Abra Province. We also won first place in the competition!
Post-victory smiles
Another Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend an event celebrating Sri Lankans in Hong Kong. While there are Sri Lankan migrant workers here, the population is much smaller (~1-2%) than other nationalities. This annual event was put on by an organization of all of the Sri Lankans in Hong Kong, and also included various cultural performances and food. They were gracious enough to treat me to some delicious Sri Lankan food as well.

Sri Lankan children dancing
Coconut sticky rice and fried things, delicious!
Sharing cultures is an important part of life in Hong Kong. In about a square mile around my apartment, there’s everything from Mexican to Japanese to Moroccan restaurants (and of course Chinese), and I’ve made acquaintances with people from Estonia to Finland to South Africa in addition to my migrant friends from the Philippines and Indonesia. Each of these perspectives has taught me something new about the world and challenged me to broaden my horizons about global engagement. I am certain that I will carry these multicultural experiences with me as I prepare to return home! 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Strike, Dance, Rise!

Sign from HKU's OBR event, Feb 14
One in three women will experience some form of gendered violence in her lifetime. Given that women make up over half of the world’s population, that’s more than one billion women who will face things like physical abuse, sexual abuse, economic injustice, exploitation, and discrimination.

One Billion Rising is an international event aimed at raising awareness throughout the world of the violence perpetrated against women. It is the brainchild of Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, who asked what would happen if one billion people came together to speak out against gendered violence. This year, people in over 200 countries (and territories) held events!

On February 9th, I spent 6 hours dancing outside in the cold and rain. (side note, I don't recommend this. Half of my office ended up out sick the next day!) Despite the challenges the weather produced, we still had a fantastic turnout  of about 1500 to the event. Most OBR events take place on Valentine’s Day (V-Day), but Hong Kong’s event was moved up because the majority of migrant women can only attend on Sundays. We had about 1,500 participants, including Filipino, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Thai migrants, Hong Kong locals, and other expats from around Hong Kong. Migrant groups worked for weeks to practice the dance, and it was great to see all of their hard work pay off! We were also honored to have Monqiue Wilson, a Filipina actress and one of the international directors of OBR, who came all of the way from the Philippines to participate in our event. 

This year’s theme was “One Billion Rising for Justice,” and served as a platform for women throughout the world to speak out on issues affecting them. Our OBR focused both on issues facing migrants in Hong Kong and on the specific case of Erwiana, an Indonesian worker who was tortured by her employer for months before being sent home. 

During Hong Kong’s OBR event, one of my coworkers at the Mission quoted a Filipina poet in her speech: “To be a woman is to be at war.” Migrant workers face an intersecting (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw) series of injustices: they face poverty, social and racial discrimination, joblessness in their sending countries, separation from their families, and exploitation from their employers and recruitment agencies. These injustices make up the lived experiences of migrant workers, and they must be understood as interlocking oppressions–they cannot be pulled apart as separate issues, but rather each affects the others. One Billion Rising was a wonderful opportunity for migrants throughout Hong Kong to draw attention to these issues and to share their experiences in a meaningful way.  

Cold, wet Mission interns
Personally, I hope that OBR continues on for years, and that it is indicative of a larger trend of standing up against injustice and gendered violence. It's certainly inspiring to watch!

Check out the video from the event:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Kung Hei Fat Choi, y'all!

Happy Lunar New Year from Hong Kong! Chinese New Year is one of the biggest celebrations in Hong Kong, and it's on par with Christmas in the U.S. as an important family holiday. There are many traditions surrounding the holiday, such as giving of red envelopes of money and going to the flower market. 

On the first day of Chinese New Year, I went to the famous parade in Tsim Sha Tsui. Performers came from all over the world to march, and I saw groups from Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, and even the Washington Redskins cheerleaders! 

On the second day, I did something I never thought I'd be able to do in Hong Kong–strawberry picking! The Bethune House clients and I went out to the New Territories to an organic strawberry farm. I was surprised to learn that well over half of the land in Hong Kong is undeveloped, but it was a very nice change of scenery from the super-crowded city I normally see!

Strawberry picking
(Incidentally, New Territories is a bit of a misnomer. The "New" was new in 1898, but I suppose the name stuck. This is the part of Hong Kong that was lent from the Mainland on a 99-year lease.  The border to China is only about two MTR stops from where we got off!)

Fanling, Hong Kong

Afterwards, Katie, Will, and I went to the Mariner's Club to watch the fireworks. Will's boss, the Rev. Stephen Miller and his wife the Rev. Catherine Graham, were kind enough to host us at their apartment, which has one of the best Harbour views in Hong Kong! 

The Chinese New Year fireworks are spectacular... and 20 minutes long!
On Monday, I went back to the New Territories to go to the Wishing Tree. Legend has it that if you write your wish on paper and throw it into the tree, it will come true if it stays. The higher up it lands, the more likely it is your wish will come true. If it falls, your wish was too greedy. The paper is tied to (plastic) oranges for weight. My understanding is that this tree is actually plastic as well, as the old one broke under the weight of all of the wishes in 2005. Still, what a fun tradition! 

The Wishing Tree
CNY charms for sale
We've now entered the Year of the Horse, which is my year! Apparently, it's bad luck to be in your own astrological year, but I'm told there are things you can do to help keep the bad luck at bay. Another interpretation is that it will not be so much bad luck as a year of serious self-reflection and growth. That has certainly been true for the past few months, so here's to continued growth! 

Happy New Year! 

In peace,


Thursday, January 16, 2014

In the News

The news is a funny thing. The Mission for Migrant Workers has been in the media a lot this week, for two very different reasons:

First, late last week, the Mission learned about the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a 23-year-old Indonesian domestic helper who had endured 8 months of torture at the hands of her employer. She was beaten, starved, and had her legs badly burned with scalding water to the point she can no longer stand. Erwiana is currently back in Indonesia, but the Indonesian migrant groups and the Mission have begun a Justice for Erwiana campaign here to call for the Hong Kong government to investigate and charge her employer.

 Unfortunately, Indonesian migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to these abuses. While agencies in both Indonesia and the Philippines overcharge for setting up migrant workers abroad, Indonesian law says that they MUST go through these agencies. Further, they charge almost $3000 for this placement, which means the women end up paying their entire $500 monthly salary for months before being able to even begin sending money to their families. They are afraid to leave dangerous situations because they are essentially in debt bondage, and thus these instances of abuse are further under-reported. If you're interested in learning more about the process migrant women from Indonesia must follow in order to work abroad, this photo project is excellent.

I am not directly involved in Erwiana's case, outside of supporting my coworkers who are. I can only hope that she is now safe and that she is able to find justice.

In a completely different vein, the other instance of MFMW in the media is a video that was filmed Episcopal News Service released a video this week highlighting my mission at MFMW. If you'd like to learn more about what my day-to-day life is like at the Mission, please check it out!

Thanks yall,


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Touristy Stuff

Hello again!

Hong Kong has a huge tourist industry, and for good reason: there's tons to do! While I don't generally get to spend my time sightseeing because of work, I try to use my off time to explore the city as much as I can. Hong Kong's fabulous public transportation system and small land area has made this very easy, as it only takes about an hour and a half to travel from one side of Hong Kong to the other.

Check out the photos behind the cut!

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Hello everyone!

First, I’d like to apologize for the huge span of time between these posts. It’s been an incredibly busy few months here in Hong Kong, which is a good thing! However, I have dropped the ball on staying in contact, and I promise to do better.

Here are a few of the things I’ve been up to:

  • teaching baking lessons at the Bethune House, MFMW’s shelter for migrant women in distress;
  • touring Hong Kong with my fellow YASCers;
  • attending an interfaith dialogue on migration in Bali, Indonesia which happened concurrently with the WTO meeting in early December;
  • attending various Advent/Christmas services around town;
  • working! 

I’ve broken up posts about what I’ve been up to into multiple posts, and I’ll be releasing them over the next two weeks(ish).

Birthday Celebration!
For the last two months or so, I’ve been teaching a baking class at the two shelters associated with MFMW. These lessons come with their own unique challenges: only one shelter has a toaster oven with a temperature dial, ingredients for baking are very expensive here, and people from Southeast Asia tend to not enjoy sweets in the same way Americans do. I’ve spent a lot of time googling no-bake recipes! (and if you know of any good ones, please leave me a comment!)

I really love to bake. I find the process calming, and I enjoy making treats for my friends.   It gives me a chance to give someone I care about a physical representation of that affection, and I feel like I’ve shared a piece of myself with that person.

The clients baked me a banana cake!

I don’t really consider myself someone who is good at expressing my feelings. I’m naturally introverted, and it’s difficult to come out share my affection for the people I care about. I spend a lot of my time in Hong Kong not knowing what to say because there is often nothing that I can say. Baking gives me a chance to give a physical token of these emotions and a works as a creative outlet for things I don’t always know how to say with words. After we finish whatever lesson I’ve prepared for the day, we often have a sharing time where the clients are given space to talk about the circumstances which led them to the shelter. These stories are generally powerful and tragic; more often than not the sharing time leads to crying.

Enjoying our treats!
Baking also gives me a chance to get to know the clients without the high-stress atmosphere of the Mission. When clients come in to the office, they’re usually in some sort of crisis situation: they are looking for guidance and support to navigate complex social, political, and economic systems present in Hong Kong, and they don’t always know how to advocate for their rights within these systems. The clients who end up in our shelters are usually in the most precarious positions: they’re waiting on labor tribunals, waiting on a police case, waiting to leave after being fired unexpectedly and without the pay to which they’re entitled, or any other sort of emergency situation. Their cases are always very much on their minds, but it becomes a waiting game rather than the immediacy the mission requires. If I can give them an hour or two of something fun, then I feel I’ve accomplished something for the day.

So much of being a part of the community here is sharing food together. On Sundays, migrants come together to share food and fellowship on the streets. I’m always impressed by the sheer quantities of food that ends up at these gatherings–imagine cooking a full meal (well, rice, meat, and probably a vegetable and a dessert) for 20-30 people. Now imagine doing that every week with only a rice cooker and one or two stove ranges, and transporting the cooking through a crowded city via public transportation. We eat on the ground from plastic plates covered with saran wrap, and nobody is allowed to turn down a portion. In this sense, I am able to participate and share in the migrant culture in my own way.

End result: chocolate chip pumpkin bread!
Baking also reminds me to examine my privilege in ways I’ve never considered. I’ve always grown up with access to an oven and a supermarket, and I have never had to travel to 4 different supermarkets to find powdered sugar before this year. Even in a city of 8 million people and a huge expat population, ovens are extremely rare and ingredients are quite expensive. Purchasing the ingredients for the Christmas cookies I baked last week (albeit 4 batches’ worth) cost me over $25. More than once, a client has looked at something like a package of cream cheese (about $5 here) and told me she wouldn’t be able to afford to recreate that days’ treats. I try to be creative and cost-effective with my recipes, but the variables of ingredient availability and physical space often make this impossible.  While many things about my position have challenged my thoughts about how I navigate the world, it's smaller things like this that catch me off guard and put their experiences into perspective.

I'm grateful to have this opportunity to share this with the clients. They even threw me a birthday party! (My birthday is in November... Like I said, I've been slacking on blogging!) 

If you're curious, here are a few of the recipes I’ve made with the clients:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Work and Violence

I’ve never been afraid to go to work.

I’ve held a job in some form or another almost continuously since I was 16. I’ve worked for minimum wage in retail, as a camp counselor, and as a barista; I’ve scrubbed toilets, woken up for the 4 AM Black Friday shift, stayed past 1 AM on school nights, and done various other unpleasant things associated with service industry jobs. These were minor aggravations at best; I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every minute, but they were tasks that came with actually doing the job I was getting paid for.

Many people in the U.S. do much harder work than I’ve ever done for the same (or lower) wages, and most people have much higher stakes than whether they’d be able to afford textbooks next semester. At $7.25/hour, I could earn the daily wage of a foreign domestic worker (who works on average from 6 AM to midnight) in a little more than 2 hours at home.

I’ve been inconvenienced, but I’ve never felt physically threatened for just trying to exist and do my job.

Earlier this week a client came to the mission seeking advice regarding her employer. She’d been harassed, threatened, spit on, poked in the eyes, and told she should “shrivel up and die of hunger.”  Her employer had already told her she would make her life a living hell. She had a detailed diary of each of these assaults as well as audio recordings of some of the threats. I could tell that she was shaking and near tears for most of our conversation. She was terrified of her employer to the extent that she felt it necessary to have a complaint on file in case something happened to her. In these sorts of cases, it becomes a he-said-she-said situation between the worker and the employee, and they’re very difficult to prove without concrete physical evidence.

Despite her fear of being attacked, she was determined to work for at least another month to support her family back home. In Hong Kong, if either party terminates the domestic foreign worker contract without a 30 day notice, they are forced to pay a month’s wages, and her family couldn’t afford to pay back that wage. I admired her determination, but I also felt completely helpless knowing that I was sending someone back into a situation that could easily escalate further.

I wish that this were an isolated case. I wish that I’d been shocked by her story in the ways that I should have been. I wish that I’d known something to say to make her safer in the place where she lives. Unfortunately, her story was not uncommon. In my short time here, I’ve met women who’ve described the terrible abuses they’ve faced in their situations. I’ve seen the bruises on one woman who’d been bitten so hard that half of her arm was purple. I’ve heard audio recordings of a woman being called a “piece of shit” and of loan agencies threatening to kill their families if they didn’t pay money (which was fraudulently lent in the first place). I’ve counseled people who were forced to sleep in bathrooms, hallways, and even on top of the fridge. My coworkers tell me about a woman who’d been branded with a hot iron on her hands because she’d messed up the laundry, and another who’d had cans of food thrown at her head every time her employer was displeased with something. I see women every day who are regarded as less than human for simply trying to better the lives of their families.

For these women, each day is a struggle for survival; the mere act of existing becomes a form of resistance.

I can talk about the statistics surrounding gendered violence all day: about 80% of the roughly 800,000 individuals trafficked each year are women. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Up to 50% of rapes worldwide are committed against girls under 16. The statistics are grim, but from my comfortable chair in the Sewanee library they were just numbers to be discussed as part of a broader discussion on the issues.

Knowing these numbers intellectually and looking into the eyes of someone personally experiencing them are very, very different.

Fortunately, I suppose, these stories aren’t necessarily the norm for Hong Kong. There will always be good employers and bad employers, and many domestic helpers enjoy great relations with the families where they work. To me, that still doesn’t outweigh the minority who live in constant fear of their lives.

I can’t pretend that I can make sense of these things. I’m grateful for my support system here and abroad, and I’m grateful that I have never felt these sorts of threats in my own life. They certainly aren’t exclusive to Hong Kong: domestic violence is still a pervasive worldwide problem, and many, many people work in unsafe conditions in both the U.S. and abroad. I don’t have any answers about this, and it’s quite possible that I’ll never know what happens to the woman I met earlier this week. What I do know is that the fight to end gendered violence is worth it.

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